17 August 2015

Coffee shop hygiene: 3 things to look out for before ordering your latte

(Photo credit: The Huffington Post)

It's coffee o'clock and withdrawal symptoms are setting in.  You feel light-headed and thought you saw Elvis pass by.  Everyone's staring at you; you're twitching and mumbling gooble-de-gook while curling your upper lip like the King used to.  Bit by bit, your body starts to shut down.  You can't remember your husband's name; a full-blown meltdown is nigh.

You make a dash for the coffee shop next door, take your place in the leave-me-alone corner and scream for a tall latte.  Twenty minutes and two lattes later, you're a normal, functioning human again.  You've had your fix.  You groom yourself, realise Elvis is no longer and head back to the office.... as those newly-ingested bacteria go to work inside you.

Seriously, how many of us, as a matter of habit, actually pay any attention to a coffee shop's espresso machine each time we patronise?  I'm guessing not many.  Even though every F&B outlet has a legal obligation to observe certain hygiene regulations and standards of practice (which include the maintenance and cleaning of coffee machines), the ugly truth is there are operators out there who simply do not care about them - or worse, are ignorant of them.  They allow their espresso machine to be caked in old milk and coffee residue - forgetting that, apart from its visual appeal, a clean machine also improves the taste of the coffee that comes out of it.

So, to help minimise your chances of getting served a bad-tasting (or bacteria-infested) cup of coffee the next time you pop into a coffee shop, I'm going to share with you now three things you should look out for before placing your order.

1.  The steam wand.   This is that part of the espresso machine used to steam milk.  Steam wands should be shiny and clean at all times.  Observe; does the barista immediately and properly wipe/clean the wand after each use?  He should, before the milk dries up and hardens.  The build-up of caked milk quickly harbours bacteria which will in turn infect the milk used to make subsequent beverages which, in all likelihood, could well be yours.  In making coffee beverages, milk is usually heated to 65°C-70°C which isn't hot enough to kill bacteria; so beware.  Another thing to note with regards steam wands is this: has its steel coating worn off, exposing the copper underneath?  If so, best go elsewhere for your caffeine fix because ingesting copper - bacteria or not - is a health risk in itself.

Dirty, bacteria-infested steam wand; what if this
had been used to steam the milk in YOUR latte?

2.  The cloth used to wipe/clean the steam wand should be dedicated solely for this purpose and nothing else.  A good barista will always wash, rinse and change the cloth regularly during the course of the day to ensure that it stays clean and doesn't smell.  When you walk into a coffee shop, spend a fleeting moment - for instance, when you're browsing through the menu or checking out the cakes on display - to give the cloth a once-over (it's invariably placed next to the espresso machine).  If it's dirty or soiled, it shows that the barista hasn't been washing or changing it as regularly as he should, if at all.  Just like a dirty steam wand, an unclean piece of cloth soaked with old milk and coffee residue can harbour bacteria.  Likewise, a ragged piece of cloth is a sure-fire sign of lackadaisical housekeeping.  Time to decide if you should stay or take your leave.

Bits of coffee residue and some signs of use on the
cloth is understandable, but this.... ewww!

3.  The portafilter (or coffee basket; see next picture) refers to that part of an espresso machine that holds a tamped puck of coffee grounds through which hot water is injected to produce an espresso.  Now, I know it's not always easy to try and catch a glimpse of the portafilters from your vantage point in front of the counter.  But try to move around it and watch the barista in action; he should be cleaning the coffee baskets by either flushing or wiping them after each use to remove the coffee residue left over from preparing the previous cup.  Failure to do this will almost certainly result in rancid espressos.  It also reflects poorly on the barista.  As one myself, I'd question his passion and enthusiasm.  Try the coffee shop across the street instead.

Would you like your coffee made using these coffee baskets?

Prime example of an unkempt workstation; note how the steel coating
on the steam wand has worn away, exposing the copper underneath.
 And those pieces of cloth where the coffee cups should be..... NOT good.

Having shared with you the three things to look out for the next time you visit a coffee shop, I should also add that there's really no need for anyone to become paranoid about coffee shop hygiene after reading this.  If the place is busy, some degree of untidiness can be expected as the barista rushes through the orders.

But tidiness is one thing and hygiene quite another.  Generally speaking, so long as both the steam wand and the cloth used to wipe it are kept clean, and the barista cleans out the coffee baskets after each espresso shot, there's really no reason for you to fear being served a bad cup - unless of course the coffee is of poor quality and the barista so unskilled.  The good news is most operators do observe these standards of practice; it's just those few bad apples who do not that give the decent ones a bad name.  But, hey, who's to say you won't innocently find yourself in one of these bad-apple shops one day?

(Photos courtesy of Google)

Are you able to relate - either as a customer or as a barista - to what I've written here?  If so, do share with us your experience(s) in the "Post a Comment" field below.


  1. That first paragraph certainly sounds like me lol...I'm ready to tackle anything once I've had my caffeine fix! I have never paid much attention to the machines though I have to say. I certainly will be having a little peek at them now :-)

    1. U inspired this, Kay Dee. Haha! Hope you enjoyed reading this.

  2. There are many health benefits of regular coffee consumption including protecting against type 2 diabetes, Parkinson's disease, liver disease, liver cancer, and promoting a healthy heart. So we have to be conscious about the shop or the coffee company from where you are taking it.

  3. Very true, all he says. I am a barista and currently work at a place that follows all these malfeasant practices. It's awful. I plan on quitting soon. Hygeine is so important !! It is all part and parcel of a good quality coffee experiences. It is something I personally take pride in.

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